How the mighty have fallen. In the space of a week, great industrialists have been humbled, from flying high at the beginning of the week, to driving low (fuel consumption cars at the end), how quickly so much changes.
Three great names, millions of jobs, livelihoods and communities hang in the balance.
However, what is the price of maintaining the status quo - how many millions more will be affected by inaction, lack of innovation and the problems of climate change which are inevitably exacerbated by the emissions from personal transport.
Whilst the CEOs of these great companies fight to keep them alive in the 21st century, how relevant is it to have three companies competing with each other to produce last century's technology? If anyone thinks these companies are competing with each other, they are right - but to a limited extent - they are competing for the dwindling share of the marketplace that is happy with defunct technology. Domestic U.S. car production cannot compete anymore with it's lack of investment in innovation, tokenistic gestures to the green movement which has now become mainstream, and huge swathes of excess capacity.
Ford, Chrysler and GM can no longer compete, they have been outmoded and outmanoeuvred by Japanese automakers with their superior efficient methods and management of production. Their sleek fuel efficient vehicles and newcomers from the west-coast with radically disruptive vehicle technologies that are just starting to cross the chasm, and will eventually shape the way that we all drive.
Three near-dead auto makers will do no one no good in the long run.
Many people world wide, have an emotional connection with the brands that made the American Auto Industry great, I come from a family with a deep connection with one of them -- Ford -- my grandfather spend most of his life as Captain of Ford's launch 'The Interceptor' on the River Thames, London, whilst my father started his career as a toolmaker at Ford's Dagenham, U.K. plant and worked up through the company. I remember as a child going to school in pairs of socks with the 'Ford' logo neatly embroidered on the side, and occasionally being given the odd pen or trinket when some promotional items were floating about. I grew up around Ford, was fed by Ford pay-packets, was ferried around in Ford vehicles and grew up to attend a college part-funded by Ford shortly after they decided to cease car production in Dagenham.
The effect on the local community of a major car producer ceasing vehicle manufacture cannot be underestimated, yet whilst many were forced to find new jobs, were displaced and faced periods of difficulty, green shoots grew from the ashes. The production operations that remain at Dagenham are fit for the 21st century, powered largely by renewable energy, and the college that Ford built in association with a group of other local education organisations, was at one time the largest photovoltaic array in the UK, employing onsite generation of electricity, waste water recycling, and all the other innovations that are fast becoming ubiquitous in the 21st century.
The stories of these industrial giants, are not just ones of motoring prowess on the race track, slick styling or high performance; they are personal stories about families and communities that have grown up around these brands, groups of people whose existence depends on the continued survival of these brands - and who will ultimately be forced into processes of adaptation as these brands restructure themselves to meet the needs of the 21st century.
Many acknowledge the tough challenges that the industry has to face ahead - writers for this organ highlight the need for tough fuel economy standards to be maintained, whilst there is also a clear need to develop solutions beyond oil that will take us past hybrid technology into a zero-emission revolution.... but -- to ask three failing, cash-strapped companies to achieve this aim really is a big ask.
The answer for the American auto industry comes in amalgamation - pooling what intellectual property they collectively have to develop the next generation of vehicles. A stock-take of the production facilities, supply chains, human ingenuity and labour available, and a reallocation into project teams to develop different aspects of future automobility. Duplication of effort in developing similar mediocre solutions to giant problems will not achieve the radical change necessary -- but the combined might of the U.S. auto-industry could be a sufficiently big lever to radically change the motor industry - a radical change that is not only necessary: but imperative.
Rationalisation of production alongside a set of common platforms on which a variety of vehicle designs can be based. The European car industry have this down to fine art -- Volkswagen-Audi Group producing a range of vastly differentiated vehicle designs for Audi, Volkswagen, Skoda and Seat marques but sharing the commonality of development across the range. Using common mundane components, where differentiation achieves nothing, achieves economies of scale. It is this approach that has made VAG turn the fortunes of the ailing Czech auto manufacturer Skoda, from the butt of every European car joke into a brand respected for quality and reliability in little under a decade. America can replicate this success.
Excess capacity benefits no one -- lights burning in factories running at part load, inefficient machinery and tooling, the constant threat of redundancy hanging over the head of workers is no way to continue.
Whilst uncertainty allows people to limp on into the future and maintain the status quo, it benefits no one in the long run. Certainty can be painful if you're on the receiving end of bad news -- but it allows people to move on and make new plans.
These great names can live on as different marques; there is always room for product differentiation, different trim levels, dashboard styling, body cues and accessories, but the automotive platforms that underpin these marques should be high performance -- high environmental performance.
When tax dollars are in short supply, policy makers need to be selective about how they are spent, and buying plasters for cuts that have long since festered and turned gangrenous are not the answer.
The biggest impact in terms of achieving green innovation and creating a smart resilient business that is fit for the 21st century will come from keeping the best and encouraging it with smart investment, and a renewed mission; whilst ensuring that effective transitional procedures are put in place for the communities that will be faced with the closure of excess capacity.
A United Auto Industry for United Auto Workers. Call it American Motors, call it Amalgamated Motors, call it what you want, but the message is clear -- united these great names will stand, but together they will fall.
Follow Gavin D. J. Harper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gavindjharper